Josh Smith knows how to fight.
He grew up studying martial arts in Murray and then joined the United States Marine Corps straight out of high school. He says he served his country for four years before moving to Paducah and becoming a nationally ranked professional heavyweight karate champion. He even established two Premier Martial Arts franchises after retiring from competitive life and is now working to open two more in north Nashville.
But after his brother committed suicide in September 2019, Josh learned how to use a new method of combat—social media.
He pressed for justice against his brother’s cyberbullies, and his fight grew so fierce and so loud that it earned him a seat near the First Lady of the United States during February’s State of the Union address.
“It was one of the most memorable moments of my life,” he says of the experience. “I’m hoping that it just gives more notoriety and validity to the cause.”
“I was mind-blown,” the grieving brother says. “I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. People like that, in this day and time, can still get elected and can act…on cowboy law, doing what they want to do?’”
Channing’s family worried that their son might not get a fair shot at justice, so Josh posted about Channing’s death to his more than 4,000 Facebook followers. He says his post racked up roughly 3,000 shares in a couple of days and attracted the attention of media outlets like CNN, The New York Times, The Today Show, BuzzFeed, and more. Musician Billy Ray Cyrus even called and asked how he could help.
Telling Channing’s Story
Josh’s struggle began last fall. At the time, his brother, Channing Smith, was a sweet 16-year-old from Manchester, TN, who loved motorcycles and music. He also wasn’t sure whether he identified as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual and started experimenting to sort it out. Sadly, one September day, some of his classmates procured screenshots of explicit text messages Channing had exchanged with another boy and posted them on social media.
The pain Channing felt led to him deciding to take his own life in just a few short hours.
“I’m sure that the kids involved with that never thought that [Channing’s suicide] was coming,” Josh reflects. “But it did.”
Josh felt devastated by his brother’s death, but he says he was infuriated to learn that the local district attorney had alleged biases against people like Channing. The man had previously stated that he would not apply domestic violence laws for disputes involving homosexuals.
Students who knew Channing also showed support, creating #JusticeForChanning t-shirts with magic markers and wearing them to the boy’s memorial. Billy Ray Cyrus and his band even wore similar shirts when they played at the service.
But all of that amazing support from the community and media didn’t influence the district attorney. He eventually chose not to bring criminal charges against the teens who had posted Channing’s private messages, saying there was no cause to believe crimes had been committed.
“There’s not really a clear, defined law dealing with cyberbullying, believe it or not,” Josh explains. “And that’s not just in Tennessee. That’s almost nation-wide. There’s very few laws if any, that deal with cyberbullying and the reason why is because we’ve only been using social media and kids have only had cell phones for, like, maybe 10 years or less…so our laws just haven’t really caught up with current technology.”
As a result, Josh is now working to change both laws and school culture. He says he has started looking closer at school anti-bullying policies, noticing disconnects between the policies in place and their execution. He also has started touring schools, talking to students not only about getting bullied and being bullies but also about being bystanders in bullying situations.
And his efforts have attracted some more high-profile attention.
Taking Channing’s Story to the White House
In November, he accepted an invitation to visit Melania Trump at the White House and discuss his fight against cyberbullying. Accompanied by Billy Ray Cyrus and other members of his family, Josh talked to the First Lady about his brother and the unique problems cyberbullying create.
“She was so compassionate, and you can tell that this was a very close issue for her,” he says, referring to the anti-bullying war Melania has waged through her “Be Best” campaign.
Soon after that momentous visit, the White House called with an invitation to the State of the Union address. Josh attended as a personal guest of the first family and sat with them.
It was a unique moment in Josh’s journey for justice, and he says, it took a lot of time and attention to get there. Every talk he gave and every image he posted had helped give him a national platform with which to share his brother’s story. He didn’t intend to waste it.
Now, Josh continues to spread awareness of bullying—both online and off. He hopes that one day, a legislator will take up Channing’s cause. But, in the meantime, he aims to change society from a grassroots level—by educating students in his martial arts classes and his school talks about the long-lasting effects of bullying.
He also says anyone in the Paducah community can easily get involved by following “Justice for Channing” on Facebook or Instagram and sharing the content.
If we all speak up and speak out, he believes, then other children and teens may not suffer Channing’s fate.